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This is the first installment in a 5-part series on best email practices

Whether you’re brand new to email or a veteran with decades of marketing experience, these steps will help you win more donors, activists, and voters by building relationships and credibility with your list. Over the next 4 weeks, we will publish a deep-dive on each of the following topics with industry best practices, tips and tricks for maximizing ROI, and cutting-edge techniques for keeping your messages out of email purgatory (aka the spam folder).

A Note on Consent: Email is effective because it is deeply personal, and because of its personal nature, email marketers have a responsibility to message recipients who have provided consent in one form or another. Limiting recipients to those who have asked for your messages is not only polite, it’s an industry best practice and will keep your messages out of email purgatory (aka the spam folder). A deep dive on consent is coming in the following weeks, but don’t let that stop you from learning more.

1. Don’t take shortcuts when building your list.

If you’re reading this you probably have a goal in mind and realize that email can help you achieve that goal. But before we shoot for the stars we have to have a group of people to talk to and make your goal a reality. In email marketing we call that group of people a list. See? You’re already an insider.

So where are you going to get your list?

It can be tempting to buy a list, and there are lots of vendors who will happily sell you one, but purchasing a list is not a good use of your time or money. Not only will most reputable email service providers (including NationBuilder) decline to email purchased lists, but the quality of those emails is suspect at best.

When building an email list, the gold standard is organic signups - people who come to your website and ask to receive your email. It can take months or years to build a gigantic organic list, but you can be even equally successful with a smaller list of people who have asked to hear from you.

The fastest way to build an email list is by targeting compelling petitions or offers to people in your ideal audience. Your petition or offer should take the form of a signup page that collects an email and ideally gives your new lead the option of taking action without signing up for email. We’ll learn more about how to quickly build an email list with compelling opt-in forms in the second post.

2. Don’t skip the warm up period

Let’s imagine you have a list and are ready to send email. Where do we begin? Before you ask for volunteers, donors, and even “likes” or “follows”, you need to build trust and credibility with recipients. The idea behind a warm up period is getting your recipients in the habit of opening your email and finding valuable content, so that when you eventually ask for their time, vote, or contribution, the recipient will be much more likely to open that email.

A practical warm up series provides recipients with content they value over a 3-4 email period over the course of one to two weeks. If you’re a business, that content might take the form of a free product sample or discount. If you’re a non-profit, that content might be information about free programs you offer. If you’re running for office, that content might be information about upcoming Labor Day events in the recipient’s neighborhood. The point is that before you ask your list for anything you have to give them something they value and get to know them.

There aren’t any hard or fast rules when it comes to the number of emails or period of time required for a warm up. That said, it is a good idea to have a well established relationship with your list and open rates at consistently above 20% before making an aggressive ask. We’ll learn more about warm up emails and identifying your value proposition in the third post.

3. Plan your next 5-10 emails before pushing send.

Now that your list is warm and you’re ready to make an ask of your list, it’s time to outline your first, second, third, fourth, and fifth blasts. Some people call this a content calendar, others call it a delivery schedule, but everyone calls it a plan and you ought to have one. The pace and consistency of your email is equally important as your content and list. The idea behind planning ahead for email blasts is that you will maintain a consistent pace, which is imperative for maintaining a healthy list.

One of the most commonly asked questions regarding email is, “how often should I be sending?” The answer as with many things is, “it depends.” If you’re distributing daily devotionals it might absolutely be appropriate to send daily emails. If you’re running for office, it’s probably not a good idea to ask for contributions on a daily basis. Most senders have good experience with the tried and tested weekly email. The most important thing is that your emails have a rhyme and reason.

A sequence of emails with a goal is called a “campaign” and your content calendar can have multiple campaigns running simultaneously. The premise of this suggestion is sending varied content to your list based on things you know about them. This is called targeting and is the best way to get the most from your email program. We’ll learn more about creating campaigns and sending targeted messages in the fourth post.

4. Let go of recipients who stop opening and clicking your email.

We know that not all of our emails will be read by all of our recipients, so the logical solution is to email everyone on our list every time we send because at some point they’ll open, right? Not quite.

Open and click rates are increasingly used by ISPs to determine whether to send an email to an inbox, promotion, or spam folder and in some extreme circumstances reject the message outright. Why does this matter for you? If your open rate is consistently below average it’s an indicator to ISPs that you might be sending Unsolicited Bulk Email, which is a polite word for spam.  

You won’t notice anything at first, but over time your open rate will shrink as your emails start to go to spam folders. This problem becomes cyclical as less people open email over time, ISPs think the low open rate means the email is spam and in turn filter more messages to spam folders.

The best way to maintain consistently high open and click rates is identifying and reengaging recipients who do not open email. Recipients who do not react to your re-engagement efforts should be removed from future emails. The process we just described is called “sunsetting” and is equally important as your acquisition process and warm up series.

We’ll learn more about sunsetting and how to avoid list decay in the last post.

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